Washed up

As Aidan Walker fills up the bowl with soapy water and starts washing up the breakfast, lunch and dinner things now the family’s dishwasher has died, he ponders on the meaning of behavioural design, and how we have been led to believe – erroneously, he now knows – that we can’t live without ‘labour-saving’ devices

This month's article is about domestic design. Not something we deal with much in this august publication. It's actually one of those things that fall into the lap of the columnist - a daily domestic disaster that becomes fodder for the next month's clutch of randomly organised ideas. But this particular domestic disaster does have seriously interesting implications for design - specifically behavioural design - that really have me going.

Behavioural design? It sounds like Big Brother (as in George Orwell's 1984, not reality TV), and there are theorists and academics working on it - the Design Council and Warwick Business School, for instance, have set up the Behavioural Design Lab and are collaborating on a project 'exploring the intersection between design, business and behavioural science.' But much nearer the ordinary everyday, it is of course product designers who design behaviour.

I've talked before in these pages about the new gestures that the iPhone, and now all smartphones, have created - the pinch, the swipe and so on - but this one is about installed behavioural patterns, not just waving your hands and fingers. I'm talking about our dishwasher. It is so ordinary and everyday, so mundane that even stretching an art director's point - for a design magazine - won't get us as far as publishing a pic of it. It's just... ordinary.

Until it stopped working, that is. On New Year's Day. Imagine the panic. OMG, what are we going to do? Visions of a family bravely smiling and waving as they disappear under a rising tide of dirty dishes. And there we were in the middle of a long holiday. Yes, we could have gone out and bought one but I have a connection with a manufacturer of such appliances - very top of the range, very expensive - and naturally thought I ought to be able to get a deal.

The downside? I'd have to wait until the world went back to work in week's time to find out. The surprise? After a week of living without one, we at home turned to each other and, more or less in unison, said: 'You know, I don't think we need a dishwasher.'

Five weeks on that revelation still held good. Being a design-oriented type I stand at the sink and ponder exactly how this happened, and how it is that those first visions of domestic disaster never materialised, nor are they looking likely to do so.

Design in the widest sense of course - design ramifying into behaviour, into expectation, into process, even into relationships - is, as with most circumstances, at the heart of this curious episode. Our lack of need for a dishwasher is the first thing, for instance, that my wife and I have agreed on in kitchen matters for... I don't know, I can't remember. Ever since we've been together? That alone has to be worth at least the £300-odd that a standard dishwasher will set you back. She's a 'throw everything in the sink and let it fester in crazy disarray until we can be arsed to empty the dishwasher' type of person; I'm a 'stack things carefully in the sink and run water over them so the nasty bits are soft when they go into the dishwasher - when we can be arsed to empty it' kind of person. And believe you me, the bad blood that can exist on that basis between two otherwise happily functioning members of a couple takes some describing.

Now we both agree on the process - wash up as we go, never let a huge load accumulate (or almost never, at any rate) and the whole kitchen feels cleaner and neater as a result. Yes, clean plates stand around for an hour or two on the draining board, but never for very long, and anyway it's better than dirty ones festering for days on end (Are we really that messy? No, just busy. And lazy). It also helps you teach your kids what happens to dirty plates and mugs if they don't wash them up: nothing. In the dishwasher era, they would just leave their crocks in or near the sink in the knowledge that they would be swallowed up and magically appear again, clean. Now at least they know the full story, although getting them to actually wash their mugs/bowls/spoons is another matter entirely.

Another thing. Where's the damn potato peeler? Why didn't you put it back where it belongs? Result. Now we only have two places instead of three to look for rogue utensils. They're either in the cupboard, or on the draining board. No having to look into an evil-smelling machine whose cutlery basket is so full you can't even see the potato peeler anyway. More efficiency, more love.

Thankfully, FX doesn't carry dishwasher ads, because if it did their manufacturers would start getting cross from here on: the most telling and significant of our chain of revelations is that a dishwasher doesn't actually save you time. Of course you believe it does - partly because the ads have been telling you so since 1952, and partly because you don't find yourself standing at the sink for extended periods dreamily soaping knives and forks. If you keep on the case, rinsing your dishes as you go, you are never stuck in one place in front of a heap of washing up.

Nor are you stuck in front of a closely packed stainless steel box full of cups, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, plates, potato peelers and what not, having finally brought your courage to the sticking point to empty the damn thing (and having lost the argument about whose turn it is to empty it). You're running round the kitchen putting serving spoons here, bowls there, plates there. Time and motion isn't in it. Talk about inefficient. I haven't stood around with a stopwatch, or the iPhone equivalent, but I'm convinced that we spend no more time on the washing up than we did when we had a machine that supposedly did it for us.

Which is the point, of course. It's like the plane journey to Glasgow. Only an hour or thereabouts, but how long does it take you to get to and from the airport - at both ends? What used to be known as 'labour-saving devices' only save you the labour of a very specific task. All the peripheral stuff remains either unaffected, or in the case of the dishwasher, augmented by its very own set of specific peripheral tasks - the filling, the emptying, the running round the kitchen, the search and find. But above all, the emptying.

People have looked at me very much askance when I explain our kitchen revelation. Nearly everyone I've spoken to can't imagine life without a dishwasher. I couldn't. The nub of the design argument comes from the American prosperous post-war years (it took longer for Fifties' Europe to become prosperous) when consumer culture took off, along with the newly rampant advertising industry, and manufacturers needed something to make to take up their extra wartime capacity. They made it, then hired the Mad Men to make people want it. Once consumer culture had been invented, design became deeply implicated, not in the provision of a solution or answering a need, but creating a need. A demand rather, if our five weeks of 'no need for a dishwasher' is anything to go by.

Design came up with the machinery and the styling, advertising and marketing came up with the message that this machine, like so many other domestic appliances, would liberate the oppressed housewife from her daily round of onerous tasks (God forbid there should be any feminist politics involved though. We aren't talking about getting her out of the kitchen, despite what some of the ads say). High expectations were created and, several generations later, they are higher than ever - flying in the face of daily experience, which is that we have replaced one set of tasks with another, and that often the dishwasher doesn't get the dishes as clean as they should be anyway.

Apple's product design has impacted on people's lives, given them new behaviours, new gestures and new ways of consuming product - let's call music and movies that for now. It's reasonable to suppose, although the fabled reticence of Apple about any of its design process prevents us from ever really knowing, that Steve Jobs and Johnny Ive had and have a very good idea of how their products would change people's behaviour. I very much doubt that the dishwasher people had that same understanding. They only wanted to create and shift product, and quite rightly hit on the key messages of saving time and achieving a better result to do it. What is compelling in this context is how the consuming classes have been taken in by these claims, and apparently continue to believe them.

That, intentionally or accidentally, is designing behaviour, and not in a good way. These dangerous times we live in demand that design delivers solutions to real problems, that it escapes from the servitude of consumerism, and above all that it is honest. And that goes for advertising, marketing and selling - all, arguably, contained within the concept of 'design' in its broadest definition - as well as the creation of three-dimensional objects. If you're really looking to save water and energy, the best dishwasher is a pair of hands.

I know people who have two dishwashers. Do they have twice as many dishes, cups, plates, pots and pans as everyone else? Do they have double the arguments about who empties which? Here's a double sponge, ladies and gentlemen, scratchy one side and spongy the other, here's a brush for pots and pans, and here's the washing-up liquid. Go on, get to it. Get your hands wet. Both of them.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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